It’s no secret that the effects of Michigan’s “brain drain” have impacted the city of Detroit. In April of last year, Mobilize.org called upon a cohort of 18-30-year-olds from greater Detroit to attend a weekend-long convention in order to answer a daunting question: how can the state’s largest city attract and retain Millenials? The conversations that followed were profound and the solutions were people-based and exciting, yet one glaring disconnect united one group of strangers in an instant.
As conversations progressed, the participants seated at table 11 noticed a pattern in the solutions proposed. In today’s increasingly digital world, many revitalization efforts, especially those concerning Millennials, depend on reliable Internet access. This poses a big problem in a city where, according to a 2012 Knight Foundation report, less than 40% of households have access to a broadband Internet connection. A majority of Detroit’s households lie outside of the revitalization centers of Midtown and Downtown, and lack access to even basic city services. What could be done to bridge this digital divide in Detroit’s neighborhoods? By day’s end, table 11 had a solution of their own, and Wi-Detroit was born.
Wi-Detroit is a community-powered street team dedicated to relevant collaboration as a means of eradicating Wi-Fi deserts in Detroit’s neighborhoods. Simply put, Wi-Detroit connects existing digital justice initiatives and resources with the communities that can benefit from them the most. By partnering with the technology behind Wireless Ypsi, HDL.com, and community leaders throughout the city, open-source technology is being deployed to create community-sustained Wi-Fi networks for public access.
“A wireless mesh network is essentially a web of strategically placed radios that ping-pong a wireless internet signal to one another that the public can access,” explains Wi-Detroit co-founder and marketing coordinator Katie Hearn, a Garden City native who also works for the Heidelberg Project. “These radios need a physical source of Internet to draw from, though, and that’s where the community really comes into play.” By plugging a radio into an existing router, a separate IP address is created. This allows the owner of the router to maintain the speed and privacy of their own Internet service while also sharing a portion of their connectivity with those around them. The other radios pick up the new public network and send the signal to one another. The more routers join the network, the stronger and more seamless the connection.
That’s not to say the street team is only interested in large-scale endeavors. In fact, they’re starting quite small. “Our emphasis right now is deploying the technology where people are already gathering,” says Wi-Detroit team manager Laura Katsnelson, a West Bloomfield native studying business and philosophy at the University of Michigan. “It is our hope that we can empower small-business owners, churches, and community centers to provide their neighbors with reliable access to the Internet, even if that only means extending a Wi-Fi signal into one additional room of their building.” Secured public Wi-Fi can increase an establishment’s stake in the health of their greater community by opening up new possibilities in the quality and variety of services provided, customers served, and overall patronage and interaction. “It’s truly a win-win for community partners,” Katsnelson adds, “something we realized from the very beginning sitting at table 11.”
The group’s first partnership was with the Brightmoor Community Center (BCC), where the reach of their Internet service provider’s router simply didn’t extend far enough into the building. One more radio was added to equip more of the building with Internet access, resulting in a jump of about 100 internet users per month within the building. Both Dennis Talbert, Interim Chairman at the BCC, and Kirk Mayes, CEO of the Brightmoor Alliance, played key roles in the deployment, which has enabled this mix of BCC staff, community members, and passers-by to use the building’s Wi-Detroit network as their access point.
Currently, Wi-Detroit is working to outfit the Coalition on Temporary Shelter (COTS) headquarters with radios to create Internet-ready gathering spaces for residents and visitors alike. Since so many of the residents at COTS are in the stage where they are actively working to better their situations, the hope is that the presence of Wi-Fi in the building will allow better communication with personal support networks as well as more frequent access to the wealth of opportunities that the Internet provides. The next step for the partnership will be to develop toolkits for navigating the Web’s many resources, from free email to job-search engines, as well as resources on Internet literacy.
Another founding member of the group, Rebecca Nikodem, manages community partnerships while finishing up a degree in Urban and Regional Studies at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. “The open-source model for Wireless mesh networks is so affordable and attainable, there is no reason not to pursue them wherever we can,” Nikodem notes. What truly motivates the Wi-Detroit team, however, is the potential to empower the individual, family, and neighborhood to harness the Web to improve their circumstances and, in the process, strengthen the ties of their communities. Brandi Keeler, a native Challenge Detroiter who has lent her design skills and activist background to the project from day one, adds that “historically, the digital divide has been another seemingly unbreakable cycle of inequity. The people of Detroit need to know that there is a way to break that cycle, but only if we work together to lift up our neighbors.”
You can learn more about Wi-Detroit at www.strikingly.com/wi-detroit, or by following them on Facebook and Twitter.